The National Juvenile Defender Center (NJDC) was established 1997 in response to ongoing deprivations of youth rights in juvenile courts. Thirty years after the United States Supreme Court's landmark decision In re Gault, which affirmed due process rights for children in delinquency proceedings, the legal services rendered to young people across the nation remained woefully inadequate.
Gault was designed to alter the tenor of delinquency cases and compel states to put a system of legal defense in place for children. Most states, however, simply adopted the adult model of representation or relinquished this constitutional mandate to unmonitored contract attorneys, not taking into account the unique and highly specialized skills needed by attorneys who defend children. Worse yet, these loosely structured systems were viewed as lesser systems, and perpetuated the notion that children’s rights were minor and that juvenile court is nothing more than “kiddie court.”
NJDC set out to build the capacity of the youth defense practice to ensure every child not only has a lawyer, but one who is specialized and trained in juvenile law.
Originally founded as a project of the American Bar Association's Juvenile Justice Center, in 2005, NJDC separated from the ABA, to become an independent organization with the agility necessary to respond to the national crisis in youth defense and support lawyers who defend children facing delinquency or criminal charges.
Our Evolution to The Gault Center
As NJDC entered its 25th year of operation in 2022, we became The Gault Center: Defenders of Youth Rights. In re Gault is the foundation of the work we do and the work done by thousands of youth defense specialists across the country.
For years, we have been working to remove the stigmatizing and pejorative term “juvenile” from our vocabulary when we speak of young people and the lawyers who defend them, and we have been challenging our community to do the same. It became clear that our organization’s name needed to reflect this intention as well as our commitment to the strength of young people and so our evolution to The Gault Center: Defenders of Youth Rights.
In re Gault is a promise this country made to its children; the promise of Gault is the promise of the future. It is our job at The Gault Center to hold our systems to this promise.
Patricia Puritz founded NJDC. Prior to creating NJDC, Patti had founded and directed for 20 years the American Bar Association's Juvenile Justice Center.
In 1993, Patti partnered with colleagues from the Youth Law Center and Juvenile Law Center to launch the Due Process Advocacy Project, which led to the research and publication of A Call for Justice: An Assessment of Access to Counsel and Quality of Representation in Delinquency Proceedings. Springing from A Call for Justice came the first, and highly acclaimed, Juvenile Defender Leadership Summit in 1997 and the ongoing state assessments of access to and quality of defense counsel for youth.
Patti has decades of experience in designing, implementing, managing, and monitoring programs to reform the nation’s juvenile court systems; delivering effective legal services to children; and in improving conditions of confinement. After founding the National Juvenile Defender Center, she focused exclusively on devising strategies to ensure that children have adequate access to competent counsel throughout the duration of the court process.
Patti was appointed to Virginia’s Board of Juvenile Justice in 2003, and re-appointed to a second term in 2007. She has served on numerous boards of directors and advisory committees, including the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers' Juvenile Justice Committee; National Center for Child Traumatic Stress; Guidelines Implementation Committee of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges; Executive Committee of the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change Initiative; Juvenile Regional Services in New Orleans, Louisiana; and the DC Exchange, a nonprofit organization that advocates for youth in the justice system in the District of Columbia.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers named Patti the 2005 Champion of Indigent Defense and she was the recipient of the 2006 American Bar Association’s Livingston Hall Juvenile Justice Award, received the 2007 Public Service Award from the Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review of Harvard Law School, and received the 2015 Award for Lifetime Leadership in Youth Justice Reform from the National Juvenile Justice Network. She currently teaches and consults on a range of youth justice issues.